Much to Memorialize

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Late afternoon in Riverside Park on Memorial Day. Photo: JH.

Monday, May 30, 2022. Yesterday was mainly sunny and warm in the mid-70s. It was also the quietest day of an ordinarily quiet weekend. In the late morning, I drove over to Zabar’s on the West Side. Driving through the Park on the 79th Street transverse, I was the only car on the road for a moment — both east and west; a rare New York moment. The drive through the Park is its own trip — festooning with greenery rich and freshly shining — it can lift anyone’s spirits.

Memorial Day in New York is the first holiday weekend traditionally signaling the beginning of the summer season for many Americans.

It’s an outdoor celebration, be it at the beach or poolside, and a time when families often get together. The pandemic has certainly altered its nature although this is a holiday where people tend to socialize in one way or another.

Growing up in Massachusetts in the middle of the last century it meant many wonderful things including the child’s recently acquired (in school) notion of Patriotism. When I read in the paper about someone referring to himself or someone else as a Patriot, I can only think of what it used to mean. It meant the flag. The American Flag was beautiful and rich in color. If the day itself were warm enough it was the first day we could go barefoot — heralding summer coming in and playing outdoors all day until dinner and then afterwards until nightfall.  This was a milestone much appreciated and practiced if we had “permission” from our parents.

The day also meant a parade in almost every town across America. This included many veteran soldiers, often wearing their old uniforms, marching in the parade, bearing flags and led by brass bands playing patriotic tunes. In some places there would even be a surviving Army member who had served in the Civil War. This was rare, of course, for the few eldest among the parade served in the First World War and the Spanish American War.

John Philip Sousa, once conductor of the United States Marine Band at the beginning of the 20th century, was venerated for his marching tunes, the most famous being “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Its strains were also heard on every Main Street in the land on this day.

Sousa himself was still so famous by mid-century (he’d died in 1932) that a film bio was made about him starring Clifton Webb as Sousa and featuring a very young Robert Wagner and Deborah Paget.

Clifton Webb, Debra Paget, and Robert Wagner in Stars and Stripes Forever, 1952.

Patriotism was a notion instilled in all school children, meaning bravery of our adults, goodness; freedom for all, and reverence for those who died on foreign shores to protect those words as realities. The parade usually marched down the main streets of the town to the local cemetery where wreaths were lain against the gravestones and monuments of the men who had died while serving in those wars.

By the 1950s, the focus of these celebrations was on World War II, for all families either had members or knew someone who had served — many of whom had died — in that war. My eldest sister (who was fourteen years my senior) married a soldier who served in Germany during that war.

My earliest memory of it was as a three-year-old watching my sister packing a cardboard box full of candy bars that she’d acquired over time (there was a rationing of sugar and chocolate) to send to him in Germany.

Little David, age 3, with his wonderful big sister Helen (then age 17).

Everything about that box was a treasure to the eyes of this little one and although my dear sister was always kind and generous to her baby brother (all his life), she would never share a morsel from that box. I understood how precious those candies were of course, although I didn’t understand “why.”

The day itself meant a picnic. Hotdogs, potato chips, watermelon, ice cream and Coca-Cola — staples today to anyone who wishes, but back then many were special items for special occasions in those times. Sacrifice was a daily given. This was understood by all citizens.

There was an exuberance infused from one’s earliest years about one’s sense of country and self. “A Man Without a Country” was a tragic tale in this context. Benedict Arnold was a bad man and Nathan Hale was brave and a real patriot. Memorial Day was meant to remind us of them.

Memorial Day (then called ‘Decoration Day’) festivities on Riverside Avenue, at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Riverside Park, New York City, May 30, 1917 (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs)

Over 100 years later — The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Monument on Riverside Drive and 89th Street on Memorial Day. The monument commemorates Union Army soldiers and sailors who served in the Civil War. On Memorial Day 1902 (then called ‘Decoration Day’), the monument was unveiled following a parade of Civil War veterans up Riverside Drive to the site.

Most of that reverie ended for me by adolescence, and the world was changing, too. The War in Vietnam traumatized millions of Americans and the result was heavily divisive, although that heaviness has faded into distant memory. But there was even a moment when the national sentiment was turning against the soldiers themselves. That was very brief but nevertheless a first.

Death is an incomprehensible idea to a child, even highlighted by a parade. The cemetery in my hometown, incidentally, was less than a mile away from my neighborhood, and a wonderful place to play cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, along with those scenarios we saw at the movies or read in comic books. Death itself was incomprehensible. But honor and courage and tragic endings (loss) were serious things when you became a grown-up.

The men and women are still dying for us. So that we may be free, as some put it. Their loss is the greatest tragedy, not to mention the loss to their families. This is the day for Remembering.

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